After several days of aggressive military advances, the spotlight is on Libya once again. For a long time it’s been both the most strategically relevant yet most overlooked country in the Mediterranean. Now, some decisive maneuvers by a renegade general could pierce, or further complicate, the cloud of chaos that has descended on Libya since the 2011 civil war.
At the heart of this is Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, now leading the current move by forces from the east of the country towards the capital Tripoli. Haftar is, to be polite, the ultimate pragmatist. He supported Moammar Gadhafi in his 1969 coup, then found himself in Langley, Virginia in the 90s where he gained US citizenship, before returning to overthrow Gadhafi in the 2011 conflict. Since then, he has been one of many strongmen claiming pre-eminence in the nation’s descent into disarray, based in the city of Benghazi and exerting most of his control in eastern Libya.
It is unclear how serious Haftar is about moving into Tripoli, the heavily populated capital where warring militia occasionally spar for control, preventing the UN-recognized and Western-backed government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj from fully grasping the reins of power.
A Western diplomat in the city, who did not want to be named in order to discuss a sensitive topic, said Haftar was likely hovering somewhere between posturing and making a definitive move on the capital. The outcome could be extremely bloody or, given the quixotic nature of Libya’s power struggles and backroom dealing, over quite fast. It is also taking place, somewhat daringly, just as the United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres is in the country. Guterres was flying on Friday between Tripoli and Benghazi to mediate.
On Friday morning Haftar’s spokesman Ahmed al-Mesmari said from Benghazi that his forces continue to advance. “The people of Tripoli, hopefully, will be seeing the victories of the armed forces in accomplishing the main mission in the war against terrorism, which is the purging of the capital,” he told Agence France-Presse. “Therefore, the law enforcement in the capital will have an effect on the entire country.”
“There will be other hubs that will be opened within the next hours for the advancement towards Tripoli from multiple sides and places. Large forces have now been set out: approximately two teams, light infantry and mechanized infantry,” Mesmari said.
By now Libyans must crave some stability, the bickering in Tripoli having reached a point of absurdity. When I was last there in 2016, Sarraj’s government was proclaiming its dominance. A spokesman in a completely empty, brand-new office told me to ignore the Libya Dawn movement, which ran most of the capital, and only accept visas from him. The power kept going off, and you could tell the location of a bank by the long lines of people outside. Things have only got worse.
Haftar has been growing in strength in recent years. The sources of his power are easy to guess at, but hard to prove. Neighboring Egypt has been sympathetic. Moscow too, although on Friday the Kremlin’s spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, noting the advance, told reporters: “The most important thing is that actions do not lead to renewed bloodshed… Moscow is not taking part in this is any way.”
Yet Moscow has courted Haftar, lavishing him with a tour of the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier in 2017. Ukrainian intelligence officials have shown me flight paths of Russian aircraft that they say have been dropping off Russian mercenaries in Benghazi and Tobruk. Evidence, they say, of Russia using its favorite new form of proxy contractor to bolster the Libyan strongman of the east.
Could this be the reason for the new spring in Haftar’s military step? Is it a show of strength to burnish his position with Guterres as he discusses his political ambitions? It is unclear. But Libya has not seen a move as potentially decisive as this for years, and few have felt so unsettled about what it means.